Tuesday, September 19, 2017

It


‘It’ arrives in cinemas on a wave of such critical adulation that you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a modern classic of the genre and the best Stephen King adaptation by a country mile.

The latter is a disingenuous tag anyway. King has been remarkably ill-served by adaptations: Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’, while technically brilliant, ditches everything that’s pure King in favour of a bunch of things that are pure Kubrick; de Palma’s ‘Carrie’ again favours technical prowess over storytelling; Tobe Hooper’s TV mini-series of ‘Salem’s Lot’ is an honourable attempt at adapting a dense novel whilst strictured by budgetary limitations and the aesthetics of the small screen; the same goes for Tommy Lee Wallace’s original take on ‘It’.

Elsewhere, the likes of ‘Silver Bullet’, ‘The Lawnmower Man’, ‘Maximum Overdrive’, ‘Sometimes They Come Back’, ‘The Mangler’ and ‘Sleepwalkers’ proliferate, while the less said about King’s pretentiously self-declared “novel for television” ‘Storm of the Century’, the better. Compared to much of what’s on offer, the likes of ‘1402’ and ‘Secret Window’ seem like highpoints.

In fact, there’s a case to be made that unless a Stephen King adaptation has “directed by Frank Darabont” in the opening credits, it probably won’t be much cop.

All of which brings us to Andy Muschietti’s ‘It’. Or ‘It: Chapter One’, given that this film concentrates only on the sections of the novel set in 1950s small town America. Only Muschietti and his various screenwriters have transposed these sections to the 1980s. Superficially, it makes sense – ‘It’ concerns a cycle of disappearances that afflicts the seemingly bucolic tower of Derry, Maine, every 27 years, and having the kids as kids in the late 80s means the filmmakers can set ‘It: Chapter Two’ contemporarily. But it’s a decision that immediately creates two problems. First, the way kids behaved in the 1950s is nothing like the way kids behaved in the 1980s. A kid housebound through illness who makes a paper boat for his brother? 1950s, yep. 1980s, they’d both be playing Nintendo. A kid so fascinated by a red balloon that he follows it into a library basement? 1950s, okay I buy it. 1980s, hell no. Second, the 1980s period trappings – indeed, the very look of the film – is pure ‘Stranger Things’. Throw in that show’s breakout star Finn Wolfhard as the foul-mouthed Richie Tozier and the whole edifice becomes top-heavy. Half the time, I thought I was watching ‘Stranger Things: The Movie’ and not a Stephen King adaptation.

Did I say Wolfhard’s character was foul-mouthed? And. Fucking. Then. Some. Remember the honed dialogue of the novel and the 1990 miniseries that establishes the bonded-as-outcasts friendship of the Losers Club? Here, it’s dialled down to a constant stream of dick jokes and “your momma” ripostes. Ordinarily, swearing in movies doesn’t bother me, and in numerous cases – ‘In Bruges’, step forward – it’s crucial to the aesthetic, but hearing the young cast of ‘It’ spewing an incessant stream of fuck fuck fuck dick your momma for two and a quarter hours became as tedious as it was dispiriting.

There are other problems: the first hour resolutely avoids any hint of narrative, instead leaping all over the place as a series of loosely related vignettes; the jump scares are telegraphed so predictably that there may as well have been a countdown timer in the top left hand corner of the screen; the score, by Benjamin Wallfisch, is so intrusive that it’s as if Wallfisch were sitting in the seat next to you, continually telling you, in a loud whisper, that the next bit is, like, really really scary … all the way through the motherfucking film; the adult cast are saddled with clichéd, one-dimensional roles; and the entire production design is over-designed. When the kids venture into a spooky old house, it’s self-consciously spooky rather than being organically creepy. When they descend into the drains to battle Pennywise, you’d think there was a whole Jeunet and Caro metropolis down there, not just a drainage system. Oh, and positively the worst thing the film does it take everything that was interesting in the novel about the black kid and either cut it out entirely or gives it to the fat kid. In its own way, it’s as bad as the whitewashing in ‘Ghost in the Shell’.

What ‘It’ does have in its favour is two bona fide great performances: Bill Skarsgård gives us a Pennywise that not only survives comparison with Tim Curry’s evergreen performance but actually makes the character his own; and Sophia Lillis as Bev just radiates star quality. She turns in a nuanced piece of characterisation that belies her 15 years. Every bit of emotion that the film achives (rather than faking in a very Spielbergian way) is down to Lillis. Damn shame, then, that the film both objectifies the hell out of her and reduces her to damsel-in-distress for the finale when she’d been allowed to be so capable in earlier scenes.

‘It’ isn’t a bad film - it’s floating around at the higher end of the second division in terms of King adaptations - but there’s just something so ordinary about it; it looks and feels no different to any horror film made in the last decade and a half. A sense of missed opportunity pervades. Tommy Lee Wallace’s small screen adaptation – for all its budgetary constraints and naff special effects – remains the better work.

Friday, September 08, 2017

The Limehouse Golem


‘The Limehouse Golem’ is a darkly entertaining little film that takes a perverse delight in monkeying with genre tropes and audience expectations. It starts out as a cop-and-killer/cat-and-mouse thriller, with jaded Scotland Yard detective John Kildare (Bill Nighy) – considered reputationally expendable by his superiors due to whispers about his sexuality – saddled with the sensationalist case of the title, a series of bloody murders that hark back to the Ratcliff Highway killings immortalised in Thomas de Quincey’s essay ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’. Throw in the Victorian London setting and we’re firmly in proto-Jack-the-Ripper territory.

Then director Juan Carlos Medina and writer Jane Goldman (adapting Peter Ackroyd’s novel) pull the rug as one of Kildare’s four suspects – failed playwright John Cree (Sam Reid) – is killed, ostensibly at the hands of his ill-treated wife, former musical hall star “Little” Lizzie (Olivia Cooke). The cases overlap. Lizzie’s trail becomes as sensational as the Golem murders. The prosecution case stacks up against her. It’s not long before she’s facing the gallows. Suddenly the film has become a courtroom drama with Kildare’s investigation ticking away in the background.

Then there’s another structural and (to a slightly lesser degree) tonal shift as Kildare, convinced that unveiling Cree posthumously as the Golem will both save Lizzie and benefit his career, visits Lizzie in prison and cajoles her into recounting her relationship with John, eager for any snippet of information that might help. We’re now in flashback territory and along for the ride in what could easily have been a trite rags-to-riches story except that Lizzie’s rise to fame is played out against a backdrop of greasepaint, illusion and backstage rivalry, the musical hall a cauldron of simmering tensions and blurred sexual identities. Lizzie’s erstwhile protector and mentor Dan Leno (Douglas Booth) is a female impersonator; Lizzie makes her music hall debut dressed as a boy. There’s a late-in-the-game bit of troilism where Lizzie’s arch-rival Aveline (Maria Valverde) assumes Lizzie’s “wifely duties” (to muddy the waters further, it’s heavily hinted that Aveline is bisexual). Even the troupe’s impresario (Eddie Marsan) – a man so avuncular that everyone calls him Uncle, for God’s sake! – has certain peccadilloes.

So we’re in sleazy potboiler territory. Only we’re not. I mentioned the de Quincey connection earlier, and ‘The Limehouse Golem’ has one eye at all times on the literary. Of course it does. The source material is by Peter Ackroyd, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature who has a Somerset Maugham Award and two Whitbread Awards on his mantelpiece*. Which is why a fog-wreathed murder mystery with all the genre tickboxes well and truly checked – from the haunted copper at the end of his career to the third act race to the gallows – has walk on parts for Karl Marx (Henry Goodman), George Gissing (Morgan Watkins). Dan Leno was also an historical figure. There’s no small amount of delight to be had in seeing the grumpily pragmatic Kildare going up against them – one of the film’s niftiest conceits is playing each of the murders as if one or other of them is guilty of it, depending on whom Kildare is interviewing at the time.

But for all of its literary pretentions, ‘The Limehouse Golem’ is at its best as a treatise on theatricality. The swapping of identities, one individual playing many parts; the nature of hagiography, brutal violence restaged for crowd-pleasing thrills; the interchangeability of gender. But it also says much about the misplaced ethos of masculinity, specifically with regard to how three men in particular want to save or redeem Lizzie and various others just plain use her.

It’s fair to say that ‘The Limehouse Golem’ has a hell of a lot bubbling away during its brisk hour and three quarter running time. It could easily have been a mess – artless and disjointed – even in the hands of an experienced director. Which makes it something worth praising that it is only his second feature-length outing, following 2012’s ‘Painless’ – a film I now have every intention of seeking out. Medina is savvy enough to give the audience what they want – there’s plenty of blood and gore, the streets of London are depicted as appropriately dark and dangerous and seedy, brothels and opium dens abound, and everything is foggy or shadowy – and keep the procedural element of the film happily bouncing from clue to clue, doubling down on the genre beats even as he subverts them.

He’s also adept with actors. Granted, Nighy – who took the role after Alan Rickman stepped down owing to ill-health (he passed away soon after) – doesn’t need much prompting: the role of Kildare fits him like a glove. Mays, a perennially underrated actor, does sterling work and who’d have thought that a Bill Nighy/Daniel Mays double act would form the backbone of the film? Booth, Marsan and Valverde are pitch perfect, the latter taking a role that was basically written as Bitch Queen From Hell and emerging with a nuanced character. And then there’s Cooke, who graduates from a cluster of good performances in indie films and TV dramas in impressive style. ‘The Limehouse Golem’, through all of its shifts in structure and perspective, is finally Lizzie’s story and Olivia Cooke gives us a Lizzie who is unforgettable.



*I’m speaking figuratively here. I don’t know whether he keeps them on his mantelpiece or not. It’s not like I’ve ever been round his gaff.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Logan Lucky


It would be an easy and reductive way to start this review by observing that ‘Logan Lucky’ is the white trash B-side to Steven Soderbergh’s earlier heist movie ‘Ocean’s Eleven’.

Easy. And reductive. And not without a glimmer of truth. It would also be worth noting that ‘Logan Lucky’ enjoys the benefit of being an original piece of work rather than a remake (albeit one that surpasses its Rat Pack source material).

‘Logan Lucky’ is a film of two halves and myriad incidental pleasures. It’s not as taut or as impeccably constructed as ‘Ocean’s Eleven’, but it unfolds with the amiability of a shaggy dog story narrated by a consummate storyteller and it’s just as impressive in its casting. It is, in fact, enough of its own film that I ought to do the decent thing and knock off the ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ comparisons right here and now.

Yeah: let’s do that.

The basic set up of ‘Logan Lucky’ – though there’s a hell of a lot more going on than the merely narrative – is that Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum), the elder scion of a family not known for having the vaguest hint of good luck shine on them, ropes siblings Clyde (Adam Driver) and Mellie (Riley Keogh) into a speedway robbery, a scheme that also compels him to recruit imprisoned safecracker Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) and his brothers Fish (Jack Quaid) and Sam (Brian Gleeson).

So why does an honest working stiff like Jimmy suddenly want to embrace a life of crime? Well, it’s partly because he’s been laid off from the very construction job that’s given him an intimate knowledge of the layout and financial workings of the speedway; partly because he’s parvenu ex-wife Bobbie-Jo (Katie Holmes) and her car-dealership-owning new husband Moody (David Denman) are about to move to another state, effectively severing Jimmy’s contact with his daughter Sadie (Farrah MacKenzie); and partly because robbing the shit out of a speedway during a NASCAR event is a big fuck you to obnoxious English racing impresario Max Chilblain (Seth MacFarlane), a wanker of the highest order who is first introduced flanked by an entourage and picking a fight with one-armed bartender Clyde. Clyde lost said arm on active service in the US army.

If that very very brief overview - one, I should add, that doesn’t even touch on Sadie’s beauty pageant obsession, Moody’s attempts to chat-up/sell a car to his sort-of sister-in-law, Jimmy’s potential romance with medical outreach worker Sylvia Harrison (Katherine Waterston), or the odd tonal shift in the last third when a heist movie suddenly becomes a police procedural – leaves you thinking that there’s more going on here than just good-ole-boys-rip-off-NASCAR, then you’re thinking as smart as … well, that’d be telling if I let on exactly whom the savviest character in the movie is.

I said earlier that ‘Logan Lucky’ is a shaggy dog story, and that’s certainly what it is first and foremost, as well as being the narrative and intellectual register in which it functions most effectively. But it’s also a study in defeated working class machismo (Jimmy was the high school quarterback destined for glory whose life actually came to nothing; Clyde went into the army in an attempt to live up to his brother’s stature and was left disabled in an explosion); the role that luck plays in how one’s life pans out (the film’s subtlest joke is the repeated denial that the Logans’ luck isn’t really cursed because Mellie’s done all right for herself: she’s a hairdresser); the social divisions created by simple earning potential (for all his business acumen, Moody is a serious trade-down for Bobbie-Jo from Jimmy); the wanton misuse of money (compare the outrageous concession stand prices at the speedway with Sylvia’s rueful commentary on how the outreach programme relies on donations); and the casually dismissive way that corporationism makes, breaks and resets the rules (the speedway management can’t determine exactly how much they lose, but sure seem happy with the insurance payout; Chilblain calls the shots over experienced drivers because his shitty energy drink pays for the race team).

I also said earlier that ‘Logan Lucky’ is a film of two halves: the first is basically a three act progression from Jimmy-gets-pushed-to-breaking-point to Jimmy-plans-the-job-and-puts-together-the-team to Jimmy-and-the-team-pull-off-the-heist, and every minute of it is an unalloyed joy; the second focuses on an FBI hardass Sarah Grayson (Hilary Swank) who tries to make sense of the case’s many weird elements and damn near puts it together. While this section is narratively valid – unlike ‘Ocean’s Eleven’, ‘Logan Lucky’ doesn’t have a Terry Benedict figure against whose oleaginous villainy even vault-cracking and multi-million theft is justified, therefore Grayson’s investigation is the mechanism by which the corporationalist shenanigans which turn victimhood into insurance-funded profit is laid bare – these scenes seem like they’ve wandered in from a different movie, and Swank’s performance seems oddly out of kilter with everyone else’s.

Steven Soderbergh’s always been something of an awkward bugger, never quite cohering to even his staunchest fans’ expectations, and it’s somehow fitting that such a luminary as Swank should emerge as the weakest link in one of his films. That said, everyone else is on form: Tatum and Driver form the best double act I’ve seen in ages (their use of “cauliflower” as a code word for Jimmy’s criminal endeavour is way funnier than it ought to be, particularly in the disgusted tone Driver uses to repeat the word, dragging it out as if it contained four times as many letters); Waterston shines in what’s basically a glorified cameo (her ‘bitch please’ look when Jimmy suggests that Sylvia is “an old lady name” is a joy to behold); Craig has more fun with a role than I’ve seen anywhere else in his filmography; and the Agitation Man of the Match Award is jointly awarded to Dwight Yoacham as a prissy prison governor beleaguered by the most hilarious prison riot ever, and Riley Keogh, who sashays through the film with insouciant cool, all haughty looks and witheringly flippant remarks.

‘Logan Lucky’ is about one degree short of a modern classic but offers so much that it’d be criminal to carp. That it shamelessly rips off ‘Two-Way Stretch’ for its most crucial subplot … aw, hell, I’m in a magnanimous mood. Full pardon granted!

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

A Ghost Story


Just over halfway through David Lowery’s ‘A Ghost Story’ – that is to say after fifty minutes or so of minimal dialogue and the communication of ideas and emotions via imagery, music and deliberately slow pacing – there’s a party scene in which a completely random character delivers a five-minute monologue on the passing of time, the inevitability of death, the impulse to leave something behind and the nature of what endures in the name of humankind and why and whether this enduring is, in and of itself, inherently meaningful.

A five-minute scene, in other words, in which writer-director Lowery finds it necessary, for some bewildering reason, to have a not particularly charismatic actor stodgily verbalise everything the film has communicated thus far in a beautiful, poignant, hypnotically compelling and quintessentially non-verbal manner. It’s an annoying scene – as inelegant conceptually as it is unnecessary intellectually – and if Lowery were to take ‘A Ghost Story’ back into the editing room and snip it out he would immediately transfigure a very very good film into an outright masterpiece.

‘A Ghost Story’ concerns itself, essentially, with two characters although plenty of other people drift through the film. The fact that we never really get to know any of these other people is a purposeful aesthetic decision. Their lives are almost on fast forward, so quickly do they enter the film, inhabit a very specific place for a brief period, then move on. The lives of our main characters, however … well, that’s where the film finds what I might otherwise describe as its heart or soul, but a better description for ‘A Ghost Story’ would be its memory and its terrible sense of endlessness.

Our main characters are called only C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara). C is a musician and an introvert. He clings onto a ramshackle house that M wants to move out of, claiming it has “history” (“not as much as you’d think,” she shoots back in a line that comes loaded, by the time she delivers it, with bitter irony), while M despairs of his lackadaisical attitude to life and tendency to hedge decision-making and responsibility. Still, what they have together seems to be the real deal – certainly if M’s grief after C dies in a car accident is anything to by. That wasn’t a spoiler, by the way.

M says goodbye to C’s mortal remains as he lies on a mortuary gurney. She pulls a white sheet back over him before she leaves. Returning home, it takes her a lot longer to say goodbye. M – or at least M’s ghost – rises from the gurney and makes a slow, defeated journey to the house they shared. Where he remains.

The first brilliant, beautiful thing that Lowery achieves is to have a man wearing a sheet with eyeholes cut into it as his ghost and it actually come across as heartbreakingly sad rather than utterly ridiculous or camp. Later, when M sees a fellow ghost in a neighbouring house, this other ghost’s sheet is patterned with flowers. It took me a moment or two: M died on a morgue trolley, this other spirit died at home under a patterned bed sheet. The attempt at communication between these remnants, and the abrupt departure of the latter when she (I strongly got the impression of the feminine though I’m not sure why or how) realises no-one she knew is going to return, will also break your heart.

The film’s notorious pie-eating scene – which is already coming to wrongly define ‘A Ghost Story’ – isn’t quite as poignant, but it says a lot about grief, survivor’s guilt and how it’s a bad idea to shoulder the pain of bereavement alone. Like everything that ‘A Ghost Story’ does – which is to say, everything single frame of it bar the lousy party scene – the communication is purely visual, slowly paced and forces the viewer into observing events from the ghost’s perspective. Not his literal POV, I hasten to add (the ghost is often in the same shot as other characters), but his perspective. The difference is crucial.

Lowery uses extended takes that recall Tarkovsky, while the look of the film is reminiscent of David Lynch’s small town Americana. The Tarkovsky touchstone is the more important. What Lowery achieves – miraculously, given that slender 92 minute running time – is to document the passage of time: fast for the various residents who inhabit C and M’s house after M finally packs up and leaves to start a new life; slow, painfully slow, for M in the immediate aftermath of C’s death; and functionally endless for C.

At some point after the party scene (have I mentioned how much I dislike the party scene?), Lowery throws the mother of all curveballs and poses the question: what happens when even a ghost tires of (un)life? How he answers that question is something I can imagine frustrating the hell out of a lot of people. At least one writer on film, whose opinions I hold as damn close to gospel, outright hates the direction ‘A Ghost Story’ takes in its last third. Personally, and with an eye discreetly turned to one specific temporal cheat, I found Lowery’s approach daring, provocative and philosophical. This would be a good moment, however, to acknowledge how important Daniel Hart’s score is vouchsafing Lowery’s overall vision. Hart’s soundtrack is a thing of beauty.

With the exception of that one damned scene, ‘A Ghost Story’ is as close to perfection as any film I’ve seen on the big screen this year has come. It is the most serious and mature discourse on the nature of love that you’re likely to see without there being subtitles at the bottom of the screen. It is the most affecting enquiry into death, memory and the nature of what remains that has been produced this decade. Its cinematography, performances and music (did I mention how much I love Daniel Hart’s score?) synergise to beautiful effect.

That fucking party scene. It comes stumbling into a movie that should have been a perfect ten and knocks it down a whole half a point.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets


‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’ – while wonderfully monickered – would have benefited from any number of different titles, the most obvious being the original title of the graphic novel it’s based on: ‘Valerian and Laureline’. Because this is equally Laureline’s film. Perhaps more Laureline’s than Valerian’s. Actually, no perhaps about it. This is a film in which Valerian (Dane DeHaan) is so badly miscast that it could have scuppered the whole production … were it not for the sheer delight of Cara Delevingne’s performance as Laureline.

So maybe we should just call it ‘Laureline and the Wet Lettuce Leaf’. Or, in ‘Friends’ stylee, ‘The Old Where a Gamine Catwalk Model Gives a Better Performance Than Clive Owen, Ethan Hawke or Herbie Hancock’. Or, in abject frustration that it seems to be heading towards being a flop, ‘The Luc Besson Sci-Fi Opus That’s Actually Better Than The Fifth Element and Fuck the Haters’. Or given how deliriously action-packed, joyously colourful and exuberantly imagined it is, ‘The Curiously Overlooked Summer Tentpole Release That’s a Fuckton More Entertaining Than Anything Marvel Have Tossed in Our Direction For Ages’.

Personally, and for the purposes of this review, I’m going with ‘Laureline: The Movie’. After a handful of nothing roles in unremarkable productions (‘Anna Karenina’, ‘The Face of an Angel’), a likeable turn in indie film ‘Paper Towns’ and being utterly wasted in the cluster fuck that was ‘Suicide Squad’, Delevingne grabs the role of Laureline with both hands and reinvents herself as the kind of sexy, sassy heroine who demands the camera’s unconditional worship. On this showing alone, I’d put her up there with the bona fide icons of Hollywood’s golden age. So, at the risk of Mrs Agitation consigning me to the doghouse, here’s a raised glass to Cara Delevingne, the Rita Hayworth or Ava Gardner of the Instagram generation.

*ceases typing … takes cold shower*

Where was I? Oh, yes. Luc Besson’s ‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’ ‘Laureline: The Movie’. Narratively, it’s a massively overcomplicated space opera with an essentially simple story at its heart. Is this a bad thing? Overcomplication and space opera go hand in hand, and ‘Laureline: The Movie’ is no more self-indulgent or show-offery in its world building than your average Peter F. Hamilton novel.


I’m not even going to bother synopsising the plot. Besson overcomplicates it to allow for more genre tropes and more world-building. This is a movie whose visuals are the raison d’être and the narrative exists to move Valerian and Laureline from one location, one alien race, one production design orgasm to another. This is no bad thing: ‘Laureline: The Movie’ is the most visually gorgeous and extravagantly imagined work Besson has ever put his name to; it is, at one and the same time, a big-hearted homage to a certain era of sci-fi, and an expression of Besson’s credentials as auteur.

Narrative as a justification for moving an audience around a filmic chessboard, pausing here and there to deliver the kind of set piece that exists purely to demonstrate its own bravura, is a tag you can hang everyone from Hitchcock to Nolan by way of Clouzot, Frankenheimer, Friedkin and Tarantino, not to mention everyone who ever directed a giallo. Which is to say that most of the criticisms levelled against ‘Laureline: The Movie’ are total bollocks weighed against the pantheon of accepted classics. So you’re hating on Besson’s latest for the very same reasons that you unironically love ‘Barbarella’ as a camp delight? Yeah, whatever.

‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’ has two problems. The first is DeHaan – a likeable enough actor elsewhere on his CV but wrong for the role of Valerian in the way that John Inman would be wrong for a biopic of Bendigo or Dwayne Johnson as Charles Hawtry. The second is Rihanna, making the jump from shit pop singer to shit actress. To mitigate Rihanna’s performance, her intro is cannily staged to resemble a music video, thereby establishing a pop culture rationale for her character. No such excuse exists for DeHaan. The only reason any fucking scene he’s foregrounded in or line of dialogue he delivers works is because of Delevingne’s reaction shot. It’s as if, thirty seconds into the first day of shooting, Besson realised that she was his film-length insurance policy.


Beyond DeHaan and Rihanna, though, the film is just pure delight and spectacle from the stand-up-and-applaud brilliant opening sequence (played out to David Bowie) to the tense but mercifully not over-egged finale … and can I just say here, thank you thank you thank you for not dragging out the climactic setpiece to four times its feasible length the way every other fucking blockbuster of the last decade has.

Spectacle. Set design. World building. Brain-searingly gorgeous visuals. And on top of it all, Develingne in excelsis. Yes, I accept that I’m in something of a minority here. Maybe I’m in the weird yet privileged position of Luc Besson having spent hundreds of millions in making a film for me alone. If so, merci beaucoup; I owe you one.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Dunkirk


At its best, ‘Dunkirk’ is a tense, immersive and visceral experience that practically screams to be seen on the biggest screen possible. The dogfights are staged so that the vast expanse of sea and sky are abruptly juxtaposed with the claustrophobic interior of the Spitfires. Scenes of men trying to escape torpedoed or dive-bombed ships strive for a Brueghel-like level of hellish intensity.

There is enough in ‘Dunkirk’ that works – and works well – for me to hesitate in calling it a failure or even outright say that I was disappointed. I was perplexed, though, that’s for sure – Nolan makes some aesthetic and narrative decisions that are frankly baffling – and I was more than often frustrated.

Things start interestingly enough with a group of English soldiers, who may have been separated from their unit or may be deserters – sneaking through the narrow streets of Dunkirk, seeing what they can steal from deserted households. German planes are dropping propaganda leaflets, two of which our immediate and ostensible hero Tommy* (Fionn Whitehead) grabs from the air and stuffs down the front of his trousers. Not too much later on, he’ll drop his breeches on the beach to take a shit and the inference is that he’s saved Adolf’s best efforts at demoralisation purely to wipe his arse on. But Nolan, for all that he’s half an hour off gleefully wallow in blood and bashed-in heads and third-degree burns, tiptoes away from Tommy’s required toilet break and even stages the scene such that Tommy might not have answered the call of nature anyway.

Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not suggesting that Nolan should have gone all real-time defecation à la ‘Kings of the Road’, but if you’re starting your movie with an I-wipe-my-arse-on-Hitler’s-propaganda note, then don’t be fucking coy about it. Anyway, Tommy’s possibly postponed poop sees him make the acquaintance of Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) whose name is subsequently revealed not to be Gibson but the script doesn’t give him any other name so I’ll continue calling him Gibson. Tommy and Gibson decide to get off Dunkirk beach by any means necessary, first by impersonating stretcher-bearers (they’re booted off the ship by the medical orderlies), and then by a feigned act of heroism in front of an officer which sees them herded onto the next troopship. Which is promptly torpedoed and they find themselves back on the beach.

Their travails are intercut with the sea crossing of Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and their friend George (Barry Keoghan) after the navy requisition Dawson’s pleasure yacht as one of the flotilla of “little ships”; and a dogfight with the Luftwaffe by RAF flyboys Collins (Jack Lowden) and Farrier (Tom Hardy). I use “flyboys” not as a derogatory term but to indicate how the script portrays them. Remember that ‘Family Guy’ episode where Stewie, on trying to join the RAF, is asked what his qualifications are and replies, “I have a British accent, I’m possibly homosexual and my wife’s just awful”? Well, that’s the level of characterisation on display here.

Nolan straight-up tells the audience from the outset that these three points of view occupy temporally different spaces: a week for the scenes on the beach, a day for the “little ships” to make the channel crossing, collect survivors and return; and an hour for the dogfight. He proceeds to intercut between them according to dramatic beats and the rhythms of Hans Zimmer’s score**. And at the cost of any sense of continuity. Granted, when he pulls all three timelines together with the tension ratcheted to the absolute maximum, it’s a genuine coup de theatre and pretty much justifies the ticket price.

The fact that we’re two-thirds plus through the film before he effects this coup de theatre, however, is indicative of the wider problem. As with so much of his work, Nolan approaches the story of Dunkirk as an exercise in non-linear experimentalism and showy imagery. His grasp of character and how men interact in the theatre of conflict is flimsy at best. Peckinpah would have focused on group dynamics and the mindset of the soldier; hell, even David Ayer would have known where to focus the drama. Nolan, to put it bluntly, misses the real story even as he continually stumbles over bits of it.

Case in point: Tommy tries to join a line of soldiers on the beach and is basically told to fuck off (“Grenadiers, mate,” a gruff squaddie says, eyeballing him). The military as a class system in microcosm: a fascinating angle Nolan could have explored, but no – a single throwaway line of dialogue and the theme is never revisited.

Case in point: James D’Arcy’s colonel is appalled by the bland assurances of Kenneth Branagh’s commander and seems, just for a moment, as if he were about to vent anger at the callous idiocy of the top brass back home, but no – the moment passes and he remembers he’s a British officer in a war movie.

Case in point: someone notes that the tide is coming in, another character asks how they know, and the curt response is that the incoming tide washes the dead – those drowned, burned or shot during an earlier (failed) evacuation attempt – ashore. Cut to a column of men, knee deep in the sea, waiting on a ship that might not even fucking exist, pushing away from them said incoming corpses. They do so hesitantly and respectfully but not without some measure of disgust. Or maybe despair.

And I couldn’t help thinking that this is where the real drama was. Imagine being one of those men on the beach. Lined up in columns. A pretence of military discipline enforced even in the aftermath of abject defeat. No certainty of rescue. The Germans pushing ever closer. Stukas strafing the beach. The promise of being on the next ship cruelly mocked by the previous ship erupting in flames then keeling over and being taken by the cold grey waves. This is where the drama is: the hope, the despair, the terror, the horrible sense of inevitability as the whine of a Stuka’s engine cuts across the sky. This is the story Nolan should have told. And yet he takes pains – and teeth-grindingly clichéd and melodramatic pains at that – to keep Tommy and Gibson off the beach. His only real focus on the men on the beach is the opportunity they present to frame a shot. He flips from the OCD delight of constructing purely geometrical images, to the childish delight in flipping over the first domino in an elaborately constructed sequence and chuckling as he watches them fall.

Likewise, the focus on Dawson does real damage to his portrayal of the “little ships”. For eighty solid minutes, you’d swear it was only his pleasure yacht making the channel crossing. Nolan doesn’t show a single other non-naval vessel until the last 15 minutes when a metric fuckton of them suddenly appear out of nowhere and Hans Zimmer loses control of himself on the soundtrack. What should be the key moment is reduced to here-comes-the-cavalry cliché.

What really kills the film, though, is two moments of bilious melodrama – one in a beached fishing boat where Tommy, Gibson and some other deserters basically re-enact that ‘Twilight Zone’ episode about the nuclear shelter but with a fishing boat instead of a nuclear shelter; and one on Dawson’s boat which makes the histrionics of ‘Dead Calm’ look like a piece by August Strindberg. Nolan’s preference for these moments over the genuine human drama of the men waiting on the beach speaks volumes about the film ‘Dunkirk’ could have been.

On a technical level, there’s little to dispute, however the performances are serviceable at best. Branagh squints and delivers his lines with all the engagement of a man who’s wondering when the pub opens. Rylance is dismal, trying for Everyman but forgetting that only the super-rich – whether it’s 1940 or 2017 – own yachts; his line readings are stilted and I’m still trying to figure out what accent he was attempting. Everyone else is basically forgettable. In fact, it says something that Harry fucking Styles is the film and his “performance” is functionally better than Mark Rylance’s!

Then we have the score. If the film itself hangs together at odds in the sum of its parts, weird tonal and aesthetic disconnects jarringly obvious from scene to scene and even within individual scenes, then the score summarises that feeling. I can only describe it as a score of two halves, not that it delineates so neatly in terms of its application throughout the film’s running time. It’s as if two entirely different scores had been commissioned, chopped up, and scattered across the film. The first uses two atonal motifs – one suggesting the inevitability of the tide, the other a thuddingly obvious “ticking clock” motif – and in the second is the kind of let’s-rip-off-Elgar-and-Vaughan-Williams orchestration that wouldn’t be out of place in a Hovis or Warburtons commercial.

But the biggest failing is Nolan’s insistence that the audience’s engagement be entirely based on a handful of cardboard cut-out characters. Dunkirk was an evacuation. The experience was collective. The odds against both soldiers and the pilots of the “little ships” were phenomenal. For all that he fills the film with carefully constructed long shots of beach and sea and columns of men, Nolan fails to communicate any sense of scale.



*Yes, Nolan wrote a script where an English soldier’s name is Tommy. Yes, my reaction was pretty much as you’d imagine.


**I will have more to say about Hans Zimmer before this review is over. It will not be pretty.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

It Comes at Night


Trey Edward Shults’s second feature film is an austere and controlled enquiry into what happens when— … No, wait. Almost wandered into spoiler territory there.

The genius of ‘It Comes at Night’ is that is takes a set of immediately recognisable genre tropes and— … Bollocks! Almost did the spoiler thing again.

It’s going to be very difficult to talk about this film in anything but the vaguest terms without inadvertently giving something away. Or rather giving away the one incisive point that every aspect of the film is moving toward, and to which every aesthetic decision by its writer/director contributes.

Subject of its writer/director: Shults is twenty-eight. This is his second film. It’s almost sickeningly well made. He worked on Jeff Nichols’s modern classic ‘Midnight Special’. The star of that film – Joel Edgerton – took the lead role in ‘It Comes at Night’ and lent weight to the project by acting as producer. Trey Edward Shults – I say this again – is twenty-eight. Talented bastard!

The film opens in Romero territory with a small group of people – in this case a family – holed up in a farmhouse in the backwoods. It’s either the present or the very near future. Some form of virus is sweeping America, possibly the world. Patriarch Paul (Edgerton) has adapted to the crisis by the application of strict routine and rigorous self-discipline, the better to protect his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr). Measures include donning gas masks when venturing outside, obsessive personal hygiene, and maintenance of a small armoury in case of attempted intrusion. One such intrusion is by Will (Christopher Abbott), who mistakenly believes that the house is abandoned. Swiftly disarmed by Paul, Will tells him that his family are holed up at a residence some miles away and while they have sufficient food they are running low on water. His incursion was to scavenge for same. Paul and Sarah discuss the situation, the latter being of the opinion that moving Will and his family and whatever supplies they have into their house offers strength in numbers against possible other intrusions. Against his better judgement, Paul accompanies Will on a journey through a stretch of woodland that might not be entirely empty of antagonist.

That’s really all I can say. What follows relies on character dynamics and interactions. There’s Paul and Sarah’s interracial marriage – no big deal in the twenty-first century, huh? But the sight of Paul (white, bearded, rifle slung across his shoulder) barking orders at his (black, wary, slightly subservient) wife and son gives the audience something uncomfortable to think about. The contrast between Paul and Will is handled effectively; in a screenplay that doesn’t waste words, every scrap of dialogue between them accumulates meaning. Nuances, pauses, a slip that could be lie, half-truth or simple misunderstanding – these things keep the audience unsure. Where, if anywhere, do your sympathies lie? Then there’s Travis, on the cusp of adulthood, vulnerable to the attentions of another father figure, not to mention— … ah, but I very nearly went waltzing down Spoiler Street again.

‘It Comes at Night’ is cannily scripted and, once you get past a draggy and rather po-faced first 15 minutes, generates slow-burn tension with a single-minded focus. Shults perhaps overuses Travis’s recurring nightmares to generate a horror movie vibe; the “jump” scares he effects by such means are the most generic aspects of the film and not as effective as the genuine moments of horror that are derive from the darker corners of the human psyche. Nor is he quite as acute a chronicler of the way men behave around each other as, say, Sam Peckinpah or Walter Hill, but that might be down to his comparative youth. Shults has talent to burn two years shy of thirty. There’s nothing to suggest that he won’t, in the coming years, deliver some outright masterpieces.

If ‘It Comes at Night’ doesn’t quite stretch its toe into masterpiece territory, it’s still damn good. Shults is smart enough to take his time and let his characters drive the narrative rather than the other way round (a failing of plenty of filmmakers twice his age). He knows how to stage a scene for maximum squirmy tension, how long to hold a shot and when to cut away. Self-evident stuff, you might think, but done with such intuitive confidence that half an hour into the film I hitched up onto the edge of my seat and, despite all of the bleakness and lack of hope on offer, grinned in anticipation of how it would play out, knowing that I was in the hands of a filmmaker who really knows what he’s doing.